OneCommunity's Middle Way - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 135

OneCommunity is a nonprofit organization in northeastern Ohio that has connected thousands of community anchor institutions with high capacity connections. Created as OneCleveland before expanding, it has remained a rather unique approach to expanding high quality Internet access. This week, CEO Lev Gonick joins us to talk about OneCommunity and its contributions to the region.

As neither a private company nor a local government, Lev believes that OneCommunity offers a third way, something they often call a "community-driven" approach. We discuss how a big city like Cleveland needs to think about solving the problem of expanding Internet access broadly.

OneCommunity has just announced the recipients of its Big Gig Challenge and Lev shares some of the lessons they learned in evaluating proposals and working with the communities that competed for the prize.

Lev and I will be on a panel together again with some other great folks in Austin for Broadband Communities in the middle of April. Great deal to attend here.

Read the transcript of this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 23 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

OneCommunity Announces "Big Gig Challenge" Award Recipients

Last fall, nonprofit ISP OneCommunity  created the "Big Gig Challenge" to jump start expansion and promote gigabit applications in northeast Ohio. The organization recently announced the winners and provided some information about their projects.

The West 25th Corridor project, running through Ohio City, Tremont, Clark-Fulton, Brooklyn Centre, and Old Brooklyn is a four mile stretch that will affect small business, the Cleveland Clinic, two MetroHealth Systems campuses, and several other large employers. This project also reaches 14 sites that could be developed and over 900 properties. It is a collaborative project that includes four Cleveland Wards.

The Village of Greenwillow plans to expand its existing network and work with private sector business owners and land developers. Likewise, Lorain County Community College will build off its existing network connections to create a community fiber road map. From a press release on the award, as printed in BBC Mag:

In response to receiving the grant, Dr. Roy Church, president of Lorain County Community College said, “We are honored to be selected as a grant recipient. This award will enable our community to dramatically increase access to the existing fiber network, positioning us to become a more globally competitive region. The funds will be used to engage stakeholders from government, healthcare, higher education and local businesses to create an implementation plan to increase high-speed connections and foster greater efficiencies.”

South Euclid, currently utilizing the OneCommunity network, received a grant to expand to to the city's municipal facilities and build out to its industrial area.

The Big Gig Challenge offered funds to cover up to 25% of the projects costs up to $2 million.

In addition to the Challenge launched last fall, OneCommunity launched a new collaborative effort with the City of Cleveland in November. A new fiber pipe, capable of 100 Gbps speeds, will be deployed along Cleveland's Health-Tech Corridor (HTC) connecting downtown to University Circle.

The $1.02 million project is funded by a $700,000 Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant, funding from the City, and a contribution from OneCommunity. Construction is expected to start early this year. It will be available for local businesses, many of which have already expressed an interest. From a Cleveland City Hall Press Release:

“We are extremely enthusiastic about our partnership with the City of Cleveland and excited to be at the forefront of a project that is destined to become the new “Gold Standard” for broadband connectivity. Consistent with our mission, we embrace 100 gigabit as a job creation engine for the City. Offering the first 100 gigabit capability, specifically in the Health-Tech Corridor, incentivizes local and national fast-growing companies to locate and remain here,” says OneCommunity CEO Lev Gonick.

We just spoke with Lev Gonick from OneCommunity on Community Broadband Bits.

CLIC Presents Special Pre-Conference Event at 2015 Broadband Summit in Austin

The 2015 Broadband Communities Summit is scheduled for April 14 - 16 in Austin, Texas. When you book your flight and reserve your room, plan on coming a day early so you can take advantage of the is year's special pre-conference event. The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) will offer a full day's agenda on the politics of local Internet choice on Monday, April 13.

Chris will speak at both events. As Senior Advisor to CLIC, he will be speaking on Monday to CLIC pre-conference attendees and then addressing economic development at the Broadband Communities Summit on Tuesday, April 14. The Summit Agenda at a Glance is now available to view.

For a limited time, CLIC members can register online for the CLIC program for $125 and attend the entire Summit for free. Choose the CODEHOLDERS button and enter the code CLIC125 to receive the special rate.

(Pssst! This is an awesome deal! You save $895!)

Massachusetts Towns Consider WiredWest Opportunity

Eleven Select boards in Franklin County are ready to take the next step with WiredWest Cooperative. According to the Recorder, the towns of Ashfield, Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, New Salem, Rowe, Shutesbury, Warwick and Wendell have all approved nonbinding resolutions taking them into the financial planning phase.

Last fall, the organization and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) agreed to meet on a regular schedule. The two organizations began meeting with town Select Boards in order to update them on financial obligations to help them decide whether or not to participate.

WiredWest Cooperative has worked with The Western Massachusetts Legislative Delegation On The Last Mile Broadband Solution to create a strategy to improve connectivity statewide. In addition to WiredWest, the group included MBI, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG), and the Mass TechCollaborative. Several state lawmakers, including Senator Stan Rosenberg, participated in the delegation.

The state will supply approximately $40 million in grant funding to MBI, that will disburse the funds, to defray the costs of deployment in hill towns. The Recorder reported:

[Monica] Webb, [speaking for WiredWest Cooperative] said the first thing town officials want to know is how much of that $40 million grant will be available to reduce their town’s share of the cost.

“The first step was to determine which towns want to participate,” said Webb. “Now that we know, there’s detailed engineering to be done. ... The numbers the towns will get will be our best estimate. We’re still refining our best estimates, but I expect that will be done over the next month.

“Towns have told us they need that information as soon as possible,” she added. “We’re working to make that happen.

“The other thing we’re going to focus on, over the next months, is a pre-subscription campaign. We won’t build out (the fiber optic network) in a town until the town has at least 40 percent (of its subscription base), who have signed up and given a deposit.”

Webb said pre-subscribers will be asked to pay a $50 deposit, which will go into an escrow account; once the town is wired, that deposit will be used to reduce their first Internet service bill.

The cooperative has more than 40 member communities. Their pre-subscription campaign will begin in late January. In February and March, WiredWest and MBI will hold informational meetings with local officials and work on business and operational plans.

As WiredWest makes its way across Massachusetts, local communities are deciding whether or not to invest to take advantage of the new connection to the big pipe that is MassBroadband 123. Leyden, population approximately 700, will vote at its annual spring town meeting whether or not to work with WiredWest to deploy fiber in Leyden.

A December article in the Recorder reported that the Selectboard voted to support the measure which would require a two-thirds vote at the annual town meeting. A debt exclusion vote will be held if that measure passes and requires a majority vote. The debt exclusion will allow Leyden to borrow in order to fund the municipal build out.

The current estimate for a network in Leyden is between $900,000 and $1.77 million. The most recent decision by the Selectboard will allow MBI to develop a more accurate plan and detailed estimate according to the Recorder.

Part of Leyden has DSL service but a 2012 WiredWest survey indicated that 56% of Leyden residents were interested in better connectivity. Popular opinion in Leyden among locals is that lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity scares away potential home buyers and new businesses. Al Woodhull, Leyden's alternate WiredWest delegate told the Recorder:

A new DSL connection was one of the reasons Woodhull bought his home five years ago.

“The house had been on the market for several years, and the previous owner had been very pleased to get DSL, because she hadn’t been able to sell the house without any kind of high-speed Internet,” he said.

Elected officials in these smaller communities have tossed around the investment for months. Few of these small communities are accustomed to such large investments and political leaders understand the risk aversion. From a November Recorder article:

“I don’t think this is a hard sell for a finance committee, but I think it’s a terribly hard sell for a town meeting,” said Charlemont Finance Committee member Toby Gould. “Unless marketing comes up with proposals that are easily understood, they won’t buy it. ... They have to be convinced this project is worth investing in.”

Local channel WWLP spoke to Leyden residents in December [video below]:

James Finney has lived in Leyden over a decade and would welcome high speed internet access. He said, “If all the other places in the county are getting the high speed and we’re back in the older technology, it certainly is going to diminish the chances that we’re going to be able to attract the businesses and the educational opportunities that are out there.”

Community Broadband Media Roundup - January 23

We continue to see reverberations from President Obama's speaking out in favor of municipal networks. The presidential nod sparked state lawmakers to propose bills, news organizations to write editorials, and to give communities a better sense of how they can take action locally.

As Claire Cain Miller with the New York Times wrote in her article for “The Upshot”:

“The goal is not to replace the big companies with small, locally run Internet providers. It is to give people more than one or two options for buying Internet – and spur everyone, including the incumbents, to offer more competitive service and pricing.”

Jeff Ward-Bailey reported on Obama’s interest in tech issues in the State of the Union, specifically the laws limiting local deployment of networks.

“Obama has said that he wants to end these laws, and the White House’s new broadband plan includes a program, BroadbandUSA, that will encourage communities to deploy their own high-speed networks. BroadbandUSA will offer guidance on planning, financing, and building municipal broadband networks, and even includes funding for “in-person technical assistance to communities.”

The always-worth-reading Harold Feld explained the significance of President Obama's short mention of Internet access in his address:

“Which brings me to the last point. Yes, the President is clearly signalling that Dems need to see investment in broadband infrastructure (including by local governments) and protecting the open Internet not as isolated issues or peripheral techie issues, but as part of a comprehensive plan to ensure that the United States has a robust 21st infrastructure necessary to support a prosperous nation with opportunity for all. At the same time, Republicans should stop thinking of this as “regulation of the Internet” and think of it in the same way we think of highway fund investment and maintaining public roads. This doesn’t have to be a partisan issue, and it didn’t use to be.”

Reactions from cities and news organizations around the country showed that people support the right to build networks for job creation, business development, education, and healthcare. 

Alex Keefe and Lynne Mccrea with Vermont Public Radio talked to Irv Thomas with central Vermont’s ECFiber for reactions to the president’s message. More than 30 percent of Vermonters did not have access to high download speeds in 2013 – that’s one of the highest percentages of any state in the nation. 

Community Broadband Efforts

Danielle Kehl and Patrick Lucey with the Open Technology Institute wrote about the significance of Obama’s announcement for other small cities that want to restore local authority to build networks: 

“The digital divide becomes even more pronounced when you compare access in urban and rural parts of America, or consider the fact that four out of five Americans who aren’t online live below the poverty line. A big part of the problem is competition: Most Americans live in areas where only a single provider offers truly high-speed connectivity (more than 25 megabits per second), and it often comes with a steep price tag.”  

Some states are wasting no time moving forward with their community Internet networks. Kudos to Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey for his proposal. The Hill’s Mario Trujillo reports:

“Booker's legislation — the Community Broadband Act — would block any state "statute, regulation, or other legal requirement" that restricts cities from providing their own Internet network. His legislation to tweak the Telecommunications Act of 1996 will be introduced Thursday.”

Booker's office framed the issue as one that could help rural and low-income communities. At least 19 states around the country have laws on the books setting limits on the creation or expansion of municipal broadband networks. 

The state with some of the slowest Internet in the nation may have hope yet for high speed Internet access thanks to a huge push by state lawmakers. Maine lawmakers on both sides of the isle submitted a whopping 35 bills that could help the state make some serious moves up the list. Darren Fishell with Bangor Daily News covered the story.

“I think most people understand that in this day and age for us to be competitive, that’s one of the necessary tools,” [Rep. Norman] Higgins (a Republican) said, noting he’s found bipartisan support on the issue. “The question, I think becomes: How do we do it? And who does it?”

One of the key proposals is a change in definitions. Whit Richardson with The Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel writes that Maine’s broadband service authority is raising the standard of broadband from 1.5 Mbps to download and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps. Currently just 20 percent of households there have access to those speeds. The new standard would mean about 80 percent of the state’s communities (up from just 5 percent) would be eligible for ConnectME funding and it be the most aggressive state in terms of requiring fast upload speeds - a boon to small businesses and people who work remotely.

But Broadband DSL Reports’ Karl Bode reports that the state may find they want to raise that bar even higher in coming months. He reports on Netflix CEO’s push for making 25 Mbps download the “new baseline.”

Another Minnesota broadband effort is nearing its financial goals. The Belle Plaine Herald report that RS Fiber’s 10 member cities re-committed to the fiber project this week. Backers are seeking another level of commitment before moving ahead with the sale of bonds in March. The first phase of building for the project is expected to begin in 2016.

Cleveland’s OneCommunity “Big Gig Challenge Grant” is going toward helping create a fiber network to connect several businesses, non-profits and the Cleveland Clinic. The West 25th Corridor project is earmarked to be municipally-led, community-wide fiber. 

“The impact of introducing fiber to this burgeoning district cannot be overstated,” according to OneCommunity CEO Lev Gonick. “Hospitals, industry and businesses of all sizes, regardless of their scope will benefit from the network. We are proud to be part of this major leap into the future as outlined by the West 25th Street Corridor Initiative.”

In Utah, UTOPIA is reaching a settlement that gives hope to the struggling network. Antone Clark with the Standard Examiner reported the good news for network, which had been running at a loss for several years. 

“Even as we speak, our revenue picture is frankly outstanding,” Paul Isaac, acting director of UTOPIA, told the Standard-Examiner recently when pressed on the operational status of the network as it heads into the 2015 year.”

Just “down the road” in San Francisco, you can access high speed Internet from all city parks, and many businesses.  Josh Harkinson with Motherboard reported on how the telecom industry has developed such a successful obstacle course for communities: 

“Like many cities, San Francisco already has a robust fiber network in place to serve government offices.  [Ron Vinson, the city's chief marketing officer] believes that the $1.7 million that the city has spent to outfit its network with public wifi (not including a $600,000 grant from Google) is totally worth it. "There's absolutely no downside being able to provide access to the internet, whether you are parking your car or waiting for a MUNI bus," he says. "It's one of those fundamental things. We fill potholes, we clean the streets, and yes, now we provide wifi. And our citizens expect that."

Seattleites hopes for a city-owned network were rekindled this week! KING5 News reported on a new group forming that will push for affordable Internet access across the city. If the group is successful, Seattle would be the largest city in the United States with a municipal network.

Missouri Considers Revoking Local Authority

Despite the positive news from the White House, another state— Missouri— will consider a bill that creates barriers for community broadband. Rep. Rocky Miller introduced the bill, Sean Buckley with Fierce Telecom.

"Miller's bill includes a provision that would require a town or city to make a majority vote to offer a "competitive service." If residents voted to build a community network, the municipality would not be able to use the revenue from other services like water and sewer to pay for the buildout of the network and services, which would create a challenge in being able to pay for the initial construction costs to extend services to homes and businesses."

Kansas City, Missouri, is concerned how the proposed legislation would stifle the torrent of tech startups and economic development activities that are tied to faster speeds. 

"[Communications litigation expert Robert] Cooper said that state laws that restrict municipal broadband deployment are "antithetical to those FCC mandates because they enshrine barriers to investment by local governments." There is "ample" evidence that advanced broadband capability is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion."

Los Angeles Times Supports Local Authority

President Obama's recent appearance in Cedar Falls infused adrenaline into the debate about local authority for telecommunications decisions. As a result, some of the media outlets from large cities are now coming out in support of local authority. The Editorial Board of the LA Times published an opinion on January 21st supporting the notion of restoring local authority in states where laws prevent community decision making.

The Times recognizes that rural areas will benefit most from reversing these restrictions, that the restrictions need to be removed for us to compete globally, and that there are numerous municipal networks that are up to the challenge of improving connectivity. The LA Times also recognizes the value of public-private partnerships in New York and in other places where local government has forged productive relationships with the private sector.

Editors at the LA Times boil it down to one tenet:

Regardless, the decision about whether a local agency should get into the broadband business should be left to the people who bear the risk — local officials and the people who elect them.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker Introduces Community Broadband Act

Senator Booker has taken the lead in introducing the Community Broadband Act to the U.S. Senate along with Senators McCaskill and Markey. We are thankful for their leadership on the issue. As part of their announcement, they included the following statements:

“As Mayor of Newark, I saw firsthand the value of empowering local communities to invest and innovate. The Community Broadband Act provides cities the flexibility they need to meet the needs of their residents,” Sen. Booker said. “This legislation will enhance economic development, improve access to education and health care services, and provide increased opportunity to individuals in underserved areas. At a time when local governments are looking for ways to ensure their communities are connected and have access to advanced and reliable networks, the Community Broadband Act empowers local governments to respond to this ever-increasing demand.”

"Barriers at the state level are preventing communities from developing local solutions when there is little or no choice in their Internet service provider,” Sen. Markey said. “This legislation will support the ability of cities to decide for themselves whether or not they would like to build their own broadband networks and provide community members with high speed Internet service. I thank Senator Booker for his leadership introducing the Community Broadband Act, which will support more options in the broadband market and greater local choice. I also continue to urge the FCC to act now to use its authority to end any restrictions placed upon local communities to make these decisions for themselves.”

“Folks in small towns and rural communities should have the same access as everyone else to the Internet, and the jobs and business opportunities it brings,” Sen. McCaskill said. “Large Internet providers too often aren’t willing to offer service in rural America, so this bill ensures local communities can come together to provide their residents with access to the opportunities high-speed broadband offers.”

And we included this statement:

We believe these decisions about how best to expand Internet access are best made by local governments, who are most informed of the need and challenges. We applaud Senator Booker for this bill to ensure communities can decide for themselves if a partnership or an investment in network infrastructure is the right choice.

The Coalition for Local Net Choice was also included, saying:

Senator Booker has been a great champion of local communities, both as a longtime mayor and now as a member of Congress. As a former mayor, he clearly understands the importance of local decision-making regarding critical economic development infrastructure. CLIC applauds Senator Booker for his affirmation of local Internet choice and his support for the authority of local governments to work on next generation broadband networks with their private sector partners and local communities.

This bill (read it here) is effectively the same language from previous, bipartisan bills in 2005 and 2007. However, in the years since, many elected Republicans have changed their mind and others no longer want to be associated with an issue that President Obama supports.

Maine Legislature All About That Broadband in 2015

Maine continues to be a hot spot in the drive to improve connectivity as the 2015 state legislative session opens. According to the Bangor Daily News, 35 bills have been introduced that deal with broadband issues.

The story also notes that several lawmakers have introduced bills that propose funding from the state. House Republican Norman Higgins advocates broadband infrastructure in rural areas of the state:

“I think most people understand that in this day and age for us to be competitive, that’s one of the necessary tools,” Higgins said, noting he’s found bipartisan support on the issue. “The question, I think becomes: How do we do it? And who does it?”

He proposes allocating millions of dollars to expand the availability of grants to municipalities that want to build and own high-speed fiber-optic networks that would be open to companies that want to serve businesses and homes, similar to the model pursued by Rockport, South Portland, Orono and Old Town.

Momentum is growing outside the Senate and House Chambers as well. In December, Governor LePage asked the ConnectME Authority to consider redefining "underserved" for projects it considers funding. The Authority obliged, reported the Bangor Daily News:

The new standard set Friday includes for the first time speed requirements for uploads, which supporters of the change said would serve small businesses.

The new standard would qualify any areas with broadband connections slower than 10 megabits per second for both downloads and uploads — a 10-10 symmetric standard — as “unserved.”

For those working on the issue of broadband, the energy is contagious:

“It’s exciting as someone who cares about broadband that there’s so much energy around it,” [public advocate with the Maine’s Public Utilities Commission Timothy] Schneider said. “And it ties into this whole trying to figure out how to do economic development not based around Maine’s legacy industries.”

Bill to Establish Broadband Grant Program in Montana State Legislature

In Missoula and Bozeman, momentum is building for improved connectivity by way of community network infrastructure. As usual, funding a municipal network is always one of the main challenges, but the state appears uninterested in helping them. State Representative Kelly McCarthy recently dropped HB 14 into the hopper, a bill to create a broadband development fund primarily for private companies.

The bill authorizes $15 million in general obligation bonds for broadband infrastructure projects for middle-mile and last-mile connectivity in rural areas. Unfortunately, projects built and maintained by private entities have priority per the language of section 3(2)(b).

The state legislature would be wise to follow Minnesota's lead and establish a program that is available to all as in the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program. Private entities are eligible to apply along with public entities and nonprofits, but do not receive special consideration.

If anything, the long history of success from cooperatives and local government approaches in infrastructure is favorable to the history of consolidation and poor services that big monopolies have offered in rural areas.

It never ceases to amaze us that people designing programs to use taxpayer money in expanding essential infrastructurel would earmark it only to subsidize entities that are the least accountable to the communities they are supposed to serve. Ultimately you have to wonder whether these programs are designed to benefit local communities or just the companies that can best afford lobbyists.

Cap Times Weighs In on Mayoral Race, Muni Broadband, and Free Internet: We Need It!

The Madison Cap Times recently ran an editorial focusing on the surprising nature of mayoral races. We were also surprised - pleasantly so - to read the intention of the editorial board (emphasis ours):

The Capital Times will add its proposals to the mix, with a special focus on using emerging technologies to promote high-wage job creation and economic development. In particular, we'll advocate for the establishment of a municipal broadband system that can provide free high-speed Internet access to all Madisonians. 

...

Madison is a great city that does plenty of things right. But it faces major challenges, some of its own making, some imposed by reactionary state government, some dictated by our complex times. A mayoral race is the pivot point at which to discuss those challenges and the proper responses to them.

The Cap Times editorial reminds us that local decision making about connectivity is rooted in our choice of local leaders. We encourage Madison voters and all other communities facing the ballot to press candidates to address the issue of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. If your community doesn't have it, ask your candidates what they intend to do about it.

Madison's mayor Soglin has been a leader on this issue via the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where he wrote and worked to adopt a resolution that called for restoring local decision-making authority to local governments.